More on Metaphor: St Patrick and the Queen of Tropes

If we are to rescue metaphor from the charge of disrepute, of being essentially dishonest, saying something is what it is not, then we have to look at it differently.

For a start, considering metaphor as a figure of speech is not helpful, for then it it is ranked with a host of others, most with uncouth-looking Greek-derived names, such as anacoluthon, syllepsis and zeugma (the terrible non-identical twins), metonymy, meiosis, synecdoche, aposiopesis and hypallage.  Being able to say which is which is seen as cleverness and commended (as I know – it used to be my stock-in-trade) while all the time the far greater game being played out under our noses is overlooked.

Even as a figure of speech or literary device, metaphor could be taught better. It is remarkable how many examples still use nouns – that sadly threadbare and moth-eaten old lion, who is forever ‘in the fray’ or ‘in the fight’ and for whom even Chambers can do no better than substitute a tiger. As Aristotle observed long ago, the real power of metaphor as a literary device lies in the choice of verbs: ‘this ulcer feeds on the flesh of my foot’ is the rather disgusting but effective instance he quotes, if I recall. Even the dear old lion gets a little breath of life if we say of someone that he mauled his opponent. Likewise if we speak of a crowd ‘surging’ we are likening it to a wave, with a suggestion of unified, fluid and powerful motion, though to be sure, familiarity has probably blinded us to that particular image.

Unexpectedness is certainly part of the effect of metaphor when it is used as a literary device: it is an implied comparison that works by substitution – we expect one word – ‘the chancellor spoke’ – but are given another – ‘he bleated’ – and by implication we are invited to compare the chancellor to a sheep. Put another way, a metaphor is an invitation to ‘see it like this.’ The masters of the unexpected in this respect were those same metaphysical poets that Vita Sackville-West refers to in her definition of metaphor. For them, it is all about wit and ingenuity, taking the most unlikely pairing and contriving to show a resemblance: Donne’s The Flea is a prime example –

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.

But the startling or ingenious comparison, though it may be what brings metaphor to most people’s attention, is only a small part of what it does, and not the most important. Where metaphor comes into its own is as a tool of thought, a way of understanding – that simple invitation, ‘see it like this’, will, if we follow it, lead us into some strange and remarkable places.

When I first started thinking of this seriously, some thirty six years ago, I was an eager student of philosophy, and that coloured my approach strongly. I was much under the influence of early Wittgenstein – his ‘picture theory’ of language – and wrestling with his somewhat later concept, ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language.’ But what now enthralled me was another kind of use: the distinction between literal and figurative.

I had been thinking about Time, and was struck by the fact that there seemed to be no language proper to it – all the words we used were borrowed from Space, or spatial relations – Time had length, it was before and after, and so on. We could not speak of Time directly, but only in terms of other things: a clear instance of what Vita Sackville-West had described as ‘expressing the unknown… in terms of the known concrete.’ My excitement at this was soon swallowed up in a greater one: it seemed to me that I had discovered the firm bank from which the bridge of metaphor sprang before it vanished midway in the fog.

It appeared to me that the literal meaning of all the terms which were applied figuratively to Time could all be explained, illustrated indeed, with reference to Space – in fact, I recall essaying an OHP presentation (don’t smile, it was cutting-edge in those days) to demonstrate this very point. What interested and excited me was the realisation that figurative use did not alter meaning; on the contrary, it relied on retaining the same meaning, but transferring it to a new context (and of course ‘transfer’ in Latin is etymologically identical to ‘metaphor’ in Greek). The meaning was not altered, but extended, from its original, literal context, where we understood it plainly, and applied to a new context, with the invitation, ‘think of it like this.’

There were two things in particular that excited me about this discovery. The first was the revelation that perhaps the most important words in the language were also the most overlooked: prepositions, the (literal) meaning of which could be demonstrated clearly and unambiguously using objects in space (I envisaged myself making my OHP presentation to a Martian). Prepositions, it seemed to me, denoted spatial relations: that is what they meant, how we understood them.

And prepositions were everywhere.

I was struck by just how many words had, as a key component, some preposition, though often in classical guise – substance, that which stands under (and compare the English ‘understand’ which literally means the same – how exciting is that?!) circumstances, what stands around, synthesis (putting together) analysis (literally, loosening up) symbolism (throwing together) preventing (coming before), the delightful adumbration, shadowing forth, metaphor itself, of course, a carrying over or across – the list seemed endless, and the presence of spatial relations as metaphorical components of words so ubiquitous, that as a young man I actually did envisage, as a piece of research, reading my way through the dictionary and making a note of all the etymologies that involved it.

It will seem a huge leap from that to speaking of St Patrick, the shamrock and the Trinity, but I recall making it at the time, because it seemed to me to illustrate very neatly the other thing that excited me about this discovery, namely that if all our metaphors were ultimately derived from spatial relations, then a three-dimensional world was implied in our language and, hence, our thought (implied, by the way, is another metaphor – ‘folded up’ – and I recall getting rather excited by the distinction between explication – unfolding – and explanation – smoothing out); but if all the imagery we used to understand what we could not come at directly (like Time) was drawn from the world of objects and space, did that not exert some kind of limit on thought itself? Were we really understanding new things at all, or only seeing them in terms of what we already understood?

Hence St Patrick, who famously explained the concept of the Trinity to the Irish king by using the shamrock: three leaves, three persons; but only one stalk, so one God. (It was a witty Irishman* who neatly embodied the counterargument to this, when a friend suggested that three men travelling in the one carriage provided a perfect illustration of the  doctrine of the Trinity – ‘ah no,’ says our man, ‘for that I would need to see one man travelling in three separate carriages.’)

The point is, of course, that the King goes away thinking he has grasped the concept of the Triune God, but in reality has only understood the structure of the shamrock. What had me near gibbering with excitement as a young man was the possibility that perhaps, in everything we thought, we were all being similarly duped.

*it was in fact an Englishman, Richard Porson – my apologies.

Metaphor, Queen of Tropes or Dishonest Harridan?

I’m not saying it’s all metaphor, but it is, just about  – and vélophile though I am, if you were to press me on what our most important invention is, I would have to put metaphor first, even ahead of the bicycle.

It was something we were taught very badly at school: the focus was entirely on what distinguished metaphor from simile and how to tell them apart, as if the crucial thing was not what they did (which is essentially the same thing), but how they did it. To make matters worse, this approach presents metaphor as something distinctly suspect, not to say shady and dishonest: ‘You see, children, while a simile only says that something is like or as another thing, a metaphor says it actually is that thing’ (almost invariably followed up by the drear examples ‘he fought like a lion/the soldier was a lion in the fight.’) Regrettably, I find that Chambers – in all other respects the nonpareil of single-volume dictionaries – perpetuates this folly: ‘a figure of speech by which a thing is spoken of as being that which it only resembles, as when a ferocious person is called a tiger.’

This approach must have left many convinced, like Belloc’s schoolboy, that ‘metaphor’ is just a long Greek word for a lie, something no honest, plain-dealing person will have anything to do with.

Yet, as I say, metaphor is of central importance – not just as a ‘figure of speech’ (as they called it when I was young) but as a tool for thinking about the world, indeed for thinking about everything.

There are two definitions of metaphor that I have always kept by me since first I started to think seriously about the matter, which as accurately as I can reckon was about thirty-six years ago (on the upper floors of David Hume Tower, in a tutorial on Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, a book I have still not succeeded in reading).

The first is from Aristotle, from the Poetics:

‘ but the greatest thing is to be a master of metaphor, for that shows the ability to see the similarity in dissimilar things.’

The second is from Vita Sackville-West, from a book she wrote on Marvell. I do not have it to hand, but the gist of it is this – speaking of the metaphysical poets, she says that they saw in metaphor the means to express ‘the unknown and dimly suspected Absolute in terms of the known concrete.’

I think these definitions make a good complementary pair – Aristotle is, as ever, ‘so very nice and dry’ – he gets right to the heart of the matter, ‘seeing the similarity in dissimilars.’

There is a paradox here, certainly – how can dissimilar things be similar? – but it is one that is easily explained in terms of another invention of Aristotle, his system of classification, where things are grouped according to general similarity but distinguished by specific difference: there is superficial difference – as between people, say, or mammals generally – but underlying similarity (in their skeletons, or the arrangement of their organs). To be a master of metaphor, by Aristotle’s definition, is to have a penetrating eye, one that sees through the beguiling surface appearance to the likeness that lies beneath.

But it is Sackville-West who brings out the real power of metaphor, which is creative, and renews the paradox in terms that are less easily resolved – this is not about seeing the similarity in dissimilar things, it is about expressing ‘the unknown… in terms of the known concrete.’ Here, a metaphor is like a bridge firmly rooted on one bank that half-way across vanishes into a mysterious fog. (The etymology of the word is from meta– beyond, after and pherein, to carry – hence something ‘carried beyond’ or ‘carried across’ – a metaphor is, literally, a ferry (a word that is surely from the same root, ultimately, via the German, fahren) – so perhaps my image should be Charon on the Styx)

It’s a fair assumption that Sackville-West’s definition owes something to Shakespeare:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven,And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

here is the same paradox restated: for what else is ‘expressing the unknown in terms of the known concrete’ than ‘giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name’?

If I am attempting to rescue metaphor from charges of dishonesty, then it seems I am not doing a very good job – and nowhere is the whiff of disrepute that hangs about poets and poetry because of metaphor better expressed (with unintentional hilarity) than in the ‘translation’ of the Shakespeare speech above into ‘modern text’ that is found in *Sparknotes ‘no fear Shakespeare’ :

‘Poets are always looking around like they’re having a fit, confusing the mundane with the otherworldly, and describing things in their writing that simply don’t exist.’

Surely not people that honest folk want anything to do with!

That seems like a good point to stop for coffee….

Elective Causality

‘Myself when young did eagerly frequent

Doctor and Saint and heard great argument

About it and about: but evermore

Came out by that same door as in I went.’

(however, let us keep Omar Khayyam for another day)

Myself when young was much annoyed by David Hume, particularly his account of causality, so I am very grateful to Schopenhauer for showing me the error of his ways; but that too is a tale for another place.

What I want to consider today is the idea that you can choose to make something a cause or ground for your actions, a notion I have labelled ‘elective causality.’

On one level, of course, this seems paradoxical – when we speak of ‘cause’ in philosophy, we presuppose necessity – the effect is that which follows necessarily from the cause, the cause that which necessarily (and invariably)produces the effect: you cannot have the one without the other; we use this as a powerful tool in all sorts of reasoning.

(Though Aristotle offers a very interesting analysis of cause which I will look at elsewhere)

But here is another kind of cause: my son dies, by his own hand – what am I to make of that? The surprising discovery is that you can make of it what you wish. You could make it a matter for shame, a family disgrace, never to be alluded to, something best forgotten – I’m sure that has happened in reality; certainly it is a commonplace in stories of a certain period.

Or you could make it a ground for savage misanthropy, for hating the world as a stupid and meaningless place and human existence itself as something equally stupid and meaningless – and people have done that too, I am sure.

Or you might say: the only thing I can do is try to live better because of him, to let him be at my side, prompting me to take the better course, to do the daring or adventurous thing, even just to make the effort, for his sake.

It seems to me that there is a causal link here, and a strong one (being forged from love in grief) and yet at the same time it is something freely chosen (which is why it must be perpetually renewed, though I suppose that habit will strengthen it).

I’m sure there must be plenty cases of this – certainly there are in stories (Michael Henchard, in the Mayor of Casterbridge, makes his shame over the drunken sale of his wife at the hiring fair the ground for reforming his life)(I am also reminded of the Ninevites, who listened to Jonah (when he eventually mustered the courage to turn up) and repented).

It is interesting territory: people will look at a life and say ‘that event changed him’ or ‘that was a turning point’ – and what followed could be good or bad – losing someone you love might drive you to despair and ruin (“he really went to pieces after his wife died”) or equally it could be the occasion of improvement (“he’s a changed man since that happened – hasn’t touched a drop, devotes himself to charitable causes”).

I suspect that we are more inclined to see the operation of the will in the good cases than the bad, and that is reflected in the language we use: when the outcome is a bad one, we say someone was ‘driven’ to despair, suicide or the like, which makes it seem against the will; but if the outcome is good, we speak of the person’s ‘waking up’ ‘having his eyes opened’ – which seems to suggest a two stage-process: you come to see something, and as a result, you alter course. Though, to be sure, we do also speak of a person’s being changed – “he’s a changed man since that happened” – which does suggest an external force.

I am reminded that Shakespeare has an interesting take on the same idea, which he puts in the mouth of Edmund in King Lear:

‘This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit
of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star!’

All in all, an interesting subject for reflection, to which I will return.